Nothing exemplifies a player’s buy-in than assimilating into their team’s culture. Sometimes it’s when they join team dinners or participate in the funny business teams do when they’ve reached a certain level of closeness.
For outsiders who rarely get to see those moments, it’s the little things on the court where this “buy-in” manifests itself. An improvement in play or a newfound attitude that falls within team culture are just some examples that endear players to fans especially when they come with wins.
Not even a year has passed since Gary Trent Jr. joined the Toronto Raptors, but in what is technically his second season with the team, he has bought into what Nick Nurse has been preaching since taking over as head coach in 2018.
Since signing a three-year, $54-million deal in the offseason, Trent Jr. has lived up to the contract and then some. His arrival the season prior came at the cost of Norman Powell, who himself was known for his ability to play well at both ends of the floor.
From a numbers standpoint, Trent Jr.’s 17.1 points per game (on .432/.369/.906 shooting splits) this season are well above his career average of 11.7 points per game. However, it’s his 2.1 steals per game that stands out. He’s had three games where he’s had at least five steals, with two of those three instances coming in wins against the Boston Celtics and the Indiana Pacers. Beyond the swipes, his 4.4 deflections per game lead the league and place him ahead of defensive stalwarts Marcus Smart and Jimmy Butler. Thanks in part to Trent Jr.’s contributions, Toronto’s’ opponents commit an average of 16.8 turnovers against them, a mark that leads the league in part due to the Raptors’ NBA-best 10.0 steals per game.
Stats aside, Trent Jr.’s activity on the defensive end has also been noticed by fans and pundits alike. Even if he doesn’t get the steal, him putting the pressure in passing lanes is enough to cause disruptions offensively.
This would especially be helpful in the crucial stretches of the season and, should they advance, in the postseason. Teams usually target the weakest link on defense and tailor offensive sets to exploit these weaknesses. Early this season, he has already shown that in clutch situations, he can lock down anyone thinking of producing a highlight (and earning a win) out of him.
The positives are always welcome, but they remain a work in progress.
Against the Golden State Warriors, who are by and large the best team in the league, Trent Jr. had a forgettable performance as he finished with 11 points (on 16 shots) and no steals in the 119-104 loss.
Stephen Curry missed eight of his 10 shot attempts and only managed to finish with 12 points and eight assists, but it was Jordan Poole and Andrew Wiggins who easily atoned for Curry’s struggles by combining for 65 points. The Raptors largely played zone and at times switched on the hot hand, but the combined 14 three-pointers from Poole and Wiggins made resistance futile. Trent Jr. featured in a couple of those defensive breakdowns and blown coverages, with him and the rest of the Raptors unable to get their offense going.
As it stands, Toronto are currently 12th in the Eastern Conference with an 8-10 record. While the Warriors served as arguably their toughest test this season, it won’t be getting much easier as the Raptors will face the Celtics, Pacers, the Memphis Grizzlies (twice), and the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks in the next five games. Trent Jr. will have his work cut out for him as he will likely draw the assignment of defending Desmond Bane, Ja Morant, Caris LeVert, Jayson Tatum, Jrue Holiday, and Khris Middleton.
As one of the many second-generation NBA players currently in the league, Trent Jr. has faced some pressure that comes with his name. He has already drawn parallels to his father’s career as he too began his career with the Portland Trail Blazers before moving onto Toronto. That he played for a blue blood program like Duke University only adds fuel to the fire. Slowly but surely, he has earned the respect not just because of his offense, but also what he can offer on defense.
Things have been up and down since Toronto won the title back in 2019 and this season presents an opportunity for them to fight for a spot in the playoffs. With his play for the Toronto Raptors this season, Gary Trent Jr. will play a big part in whether or not they make the postseason.